Last month, Master of None returned to Netflix for a second season. Aziz Ansari’s Dev had left New York heartbroken after a pretty heavy break-up, to embark on a pasta making apprenticeship in Modena, Italy. Master of None had been a bit of a revelation in terms of it’s frank and honest discussions about gender, relationships, representation, immigration and the media. So I have to say, I was pretty excited when it got renewed, and spent most of the year counting down the days until it came back. So you have to believe me when I say it absolutely pains me to write this article about how Master of None has developed a Nice Guy issue.
Before I start, let me just say that there are many highlights of season 2 which include and are not limited to: Arno and Dev’s beautiful friendship (showing that men can have emotional connections with each other), the difficult sexual assault story-line with Chef Jeff, the interrogation of modern app-based dating and every scene in which Aziz Ansari’s real life parents star as Dev’s parents.
It was ‘Thanksgiving’ however, which rated far above and beyond the rest of the series, for me. The episode is self contained and takes place in Denise’s house, Dev’s best friend (played by Lena Waithe), showing several thanksgiving dinners which span through their childhood. Not only did we get a charming insight into the origins of Denise and Dev’s friendship, we also were invited to understand Denise’s character better. In half an hour, Master of None introduced us to her family, her childhood, her early relationships and showed us her struggle with her mother with regards to her sexuality. In the rest of the series, Denise has been a hilariously funny and down to earth ‘sidekick’ for Dev, and it was satisfying to see Denise get a narrative arc of her own. Not only do we rarely get to see black or lesbian stories told on TV, but together? Unheard of. For this, Master of None has done itself proud.
What let it down though? Well, for all of Dev’s allyship and good intentions, it turns out that he is actually a “Nice Guy”. A man who talks the talk and claims to be a feminist, but inadvertently undermines and objectifies women all the same.
As explained by Nicole Froio at Bitch Media, Master of None doesn’t seem to be able to create believable or interesting female characters. This is, of course, with the exception of Denise but Lena Waithe co-wrote Denise’s episode with Aziz Ansari, so this goes some way to explaining why Denise is a well rounded and interesting character. I actually didn’t pick up on Master of None’s women problem until season 2, where the issue became largely apparent.
In ‘First Date’ we see Dev going on the same date with a number of different women. We never get the opportunity to know them at all (not like we know Dev), and they all come across as either shallow, opportunistic, not available, too available or generally not nice. They are nothing more than bodies, with no backstories and nothing to say for themselves. They are there for Dev to date and dismiss, primarily. In fact, the only women that Dev interacts with at all in a social setting are his mother, his dates and Denise (who is pointedly not a love interest as she is gay).
Which brings me nicely onto the character of Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). Dev meets Francesca when he is in Italy, learning how to make pasta in her Grandmother’s cafe. Francesca and Dev strike up a friendship and remain in contact when he goes back to the States, prompting her to get in touch when she comes over with fiance Pino for a visit. To begin with Francesca and Dev are just friends, but their relationships slowly evolves into something more. Dev develops feelings for her, and interprets every conversation and moment with Francesca as a sign that she too is interested in pursuing a relationship. She never out-rightly says that she is unhappy with Pino, or that she wants to take things further with Dev. Eventually the tension that has built between them comes to a head and, when Francesca says that she cannot pursue anything with Dev, he accuses her of using him.
Without having any regard for her feelings or the complicity of the matter at hand, Dev explodes – telling Francesca that she simply wanted someone to experiment with, as the only man she has ever been with is Pino. It’s a cliche at best, and completely misogynistic at worst, for Dev to assume that Francesca hasn’t really explored her sexuality or her desires because she has only slept with one person. In one respect it makes her even more desirable because of her ‘virginal’ past, but it also is implied that Dev thinks he knows more about sex and relationships than she does. Dev categorically believes that he deserves this relationship with Francesca just because he is a Nice Guy, even though she tells him no.
Even without this incredibly simplified view on relationships, Dev also reduces Francesca to an object of desire. Master of None paints her as a quirky but loveable, feminine yet ‘one of the lads’ type. Sounds suspiciously like a manic-pixie-dream-girl to me. Francesca encompasses every element of Amy’s speech in Gone Girl (even though I immensely dislike the film, it’s got a point). Francesca’s only purpose in the series is to be pretty and unattainable – basically to be the girl of Dev’s dreams, as explained over at Bustle by EJ Dickson. She dances round Dev’s kitchen to Italian music in his shirt, she’s only ever had one partner, she like classical films, she drinks beer and she’s immeasurably pretty. I can’t of a single thing about Francesca that isn’t skewed by the way that Dev objectifies her.
It’s a real shame because Ansari himself has, on numerous occasions, talked about feminism and the basic representation of women in TV. Master of None has one of the best records for diversity on TV, almost all of the characters are POC and they don’t fall back on just using white background artists like the vast majority of shows.
I suppose my dilemma is that it seems as if the show and Ansari are advocating for Dev’s behaviour. There is always a very fine line when the showrunner and creator is also playing the main character in a series – where does reality end? Is Master of None subtly critiquing Dev’s behaviour? Or is it failing to recognise Dev’s manipulative tactics? It’s difficult to know, and for that reason it’s likely that we are supposed to side with Dev, which I just cannot get on board with. Master of None has succeeded in so many areas, but more work is clearly needed here.
Perhaps this is also a very personal gripe,but I also got slightly annoyed with the complete lack of understanding of Europe and Italy – supermarkets and Tinder are a thing in Europe guys! I know it’s a tiny thing but it’s just a reminder that either no-one has bothered to check, and that Americans think no-where else in the world is as ‘sophisticated’ as them. It’s just lazy.